I swear I am normal. I have a full-time job. I go do things on weekends. I don’t decline social engagements for the sake of reading. And yet in January 2021, as I stared down year two of the pandemic, a repeat of last year’s 52 books in 52 weeks just didn’t seem to cut it. I dared myself to up the ante.
For 2021, the goal became 100 books.
Below, in brevity: how I managed to select 100 books that I actually liked enough to read in full, what I learned along the way, what I loved along the way, a few “superlatives” for my favorite reads.
How I Selected Books
1. I chose books that let me travel. With the pandemic still ranging, I turned to literature to appease my nagging travel bug. From Haiti to Israel to Spain to Russia to Burma and onwards, books both returned me to places I love and dropped me in landscapes and lands I doubt I’ll ever get to visit. No Covid testing, TSA, or lost luggage necessary.
2. I chose books aligned with my “Jewish Journey”. In March, I began the formal Jewish conversion process with an incredible rabbi and local community (I’m averse to the word conversion – because I’m not converting from anything, hence I’m using “journey” until I find a word I like better). The process is delightfully heavy on reading, which is reflected in the books I chose this year.
3. I chose books that I’d read before. Re-reads hold a sense of comfort that I desperately needed in this year’s wild world. I revisited a beloved WWII coming of age story set in Leningrad, recaptured the wisdom of a Stanford doctor turned patient and returned to an adventurous story about recovering an ancient, holy manuscript.
4. I chose books by author. Well, duh, you might say. But not so quick. A good chunk of my reading this year was dedicated to the works of a select group of authors I love (including Elie Wiesel, Matti Friedman, and Amos Oz). Reading these authors’ books back to back to back was deeply gratifying and left me with lots to ponder as a writer and thinker. Can you tell I’m gearing up for that some-day-book I’ll write? 😉
5. I chose books on topics I felt a duty to know more about. This year, I tried my best to shine a flashlight on topics that are just plain important. The history of Syria. The human mind on opioids. The science of burnout. The housing crisis in America. The perils of menstrual justice across the world. The war in Afghanistan. The list goes on and on. I am thankful to end the year knowing more.
What I Learned
- 100 books is a lot.
- Doing a little bit at a time, over a long time, can get me where I want to be.
- Libraries are sacred treasures. (Like super duper sacred.)
- Reading on screens is still not for me. Sorry Kindle.
- The more I read, the more creative I feel.
What I Loved
- Always having a story on hand.
- Feeling superbly qualified to provide book suggestions when asked.
- Reading well-worn library books and noticing which pages readers dogeared as their favorites.
- Talking with people I love about books they love.
- The focus and sense of accomplishment this challenge provided in a year that was so nutty.
SUPERLATIVES: Best Books I Read in 2021
The one I’ll read over and over again — When Breath Becomes Air (Paul Kalanithi)
The personal mindset changer — Think Again: The Power of Knowing What You Don’t Know (Adam Grant)
The best graphic novel — Good Talk: A Memoir in Conversations (Mira Jacobs)
The one we all need to read — Morality: Restoring the Common Good in Divided Times (Jonathan Sacks)
The most memorable memoir — Between Two Kingdoms: Memoir of a Life Interrupted (Suleika Jaouad)
The one I’ve always loved and will forever love — City of Thieves (David Benioff)
The heartiest adventure — Pumpkinflowers: A Soldier’s Story of a Forgotten War (Matti Friedman)
The one that was small but mighty — Period. End of Sentence.: A New Chapter in the Fight for Menstrual Justice (Anita Diamant)
The strongest multi-national story — Family Papers: A Sephardic Journey Through the Twentieth Century (Sarah Abrevaya Stein)
The funniest – A Very Punchable Face (Colin Jost)
The most moving historical account — The Jews of Silence (Elie Wiesel)
And What’s Next?
As for 2022, I think a more modest goal is in order — 50 books sounds quaint.
I’ll close with a poem written by a high school classmate of mine named Katherine Liu. I first read this piece while peer-editing poetry in an AP English (10 years ago now!). I remember thinking “this expresses what reading is to me.” Katherine gave me permission to keep a copy of it. I revisit it often. It is magic.